Sunday, April 28, 2019

Washington’s Gamble in Afghanistan - The National Interest

The U.S. decision to pursue talks with the Taliban is rife with risk, but it’s the right decision.
There’s a famous saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

By that measure, Washington has tested the limits of sanity with its strategy in Afghanistan: For seventeen years, it pursued the same policy while hoping in vain that it would produce the desired outcome.

Recent months, however, have brought a much-needed course correction. The new policy is rife with risk, but it’s the right policy—because it’s the only viable option Washington has left, the timing and conditions are right for it, and most importantly it puts America in a stronger position for an eventual but inevitable withdrawal from Afghanistan.

For nearly two decades, U.S. troops tried to wear the Taliban down on the battlefield, hoping that such relentless pressure would convince the insurgents to agree to negotiate an end to America’s longest-ever war.

That goal motivated the American troop surge a decade ago. More recently, it was reflected in the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy, which was announced by the president in 2017.

This consistent goal, however, has consistently failed. Years of U.S. war efforts have done little to convince the Taliban to stop fighting. This month, the insurgents announced the start of their annual spring offensive—a largely symbolic declaration, given that the Taliban now fights year round, even during the brutal winter months.

However, as President Donald Trump’s patience for fighting it out in Afghanistan has worn thin and his desire to bring troops home has increased, U.S. policy has changed significantly: It has given up on the idea of battering the Taliban on the battlefield and bringing the insurgents to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. Instead, it just wants direct talks with the terror group—in large part because it holds more territory than at any other time since the insurgency began in 2001, they have never been stronger.

To this point, there have been five rounds of talks, with the next round expected later this month. Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned Afghan-American diplomat, is the lead U.S. negotiator. The State Department—a marginalized agency during the early months of the Trump administration—is leading from the front in a determined effort to achieve what is now Washington’s prime objective in South Asia: concluding a deal with the Taliban that allows U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. - Read More

Washington's Gamble in Afghanistan | The National Interest

Special Interview With US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad

Thursday, April 25, 2019

How the US military's opium war in Afghanistan was lost

The US has spent $1.5m (£1.15m) a day since 2001 fighting the opium war in Afghanistan. So why is business still booming?

It's November 2017. The night vision camera shows a network of streets in a town in Helmand province, the poppy-growing centre of Afghanistan.

The camera wheels around the targets before the missiles come arcing in.

There are nine strikes in total, each one taking out an individual building in a series of almost simultaneous explosions.

This is a jaw-dropping example of precision bombing, using some of the most advanced military technology ever devised, including a B-52 strategic bomber, an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and an M142 tactical rocket launcher.

The video of this attack, in which eight Afghan civilians were killed, was one of a series published online by the American military - vivid evidence of the progress of a year-long bombing campaign code-named "Iron Tempest".

The objective was to take out the heroin laboratories at the heart of the Taliban's $200m-a-year opium trade, and it was to involve some 200 similar strikes. - Read More

How the US military's opium war in Afghanistan was lost - BBC News

Russia, U.S., China aim to cajole Taliban into inter-Afghan talks

KABUL (Reuters) - Russia, the United States and China will this week try to press Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents to hold talks with Afghan politicians and civilians, an important step in a process aimed at ending the Afghan war.

Representatives of the three countries will meet in Moscow on Thursday hoping to accelerate the pace of talks with the Taliban, days after the collapse of a meeting, aimed at bringing together rival Afghan sides, laid bare tensions that have hampered moves towards formal negotiations.

The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who has held several rounds of direct talks with Taliban officials in Qatar, will attend the meeting in Moscow.

“On this trip, I am working to build on international support for Afghan peace process and push Afghan parties forward on dialogue and negotiations. A bump in the road isn’t reason to slow down,” Khalilzad said on Twitter this week.

Khalilzad has made some progress in his talks with the Taliban, in particular in two main areas: a Taliban demand for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces and a U.S. demand the Taliban guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for militant attacks.

Two other main issues in the process are a ceasefire and talks between the rival Afghan sides, or inter-Afghan talks. - Read More

Russia, US, China aim to cajole Taliban into inter-Afghan talks - Reuters

UN: Pro-government forces kill more Afghans than insurgents

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan and international forces were responsible for more civilian deaths in the first three months of 2019 than the Taliban and other militants, a new U.N. report said Wednesday. It marks the first time in recent years that civilian deaths attributed to government forces and their allies exceeded those blamed on their enemies.

The statistics reflects what many say is a growing problem in Afghanistan’s brutal war, in which civilians die not only in suicide bombings and insurgent attacks but also in the cross-fire as Afghan forces and international allies pursue militants.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported Wednesday that 581 civilians were killed between Jan. 1 and March 31, with Afghan forces and their allies responsible for 305 of those deaths. The insurgents were responsible for wounding more civilians than the coalition forces, the report said.

Nearly half of the civilian deaths attributed to Afghan forces and their allies occurred during airstrikes, while some of the other civilians were killed during searches and raids of militant hideouts. U.S. forces carry out airstrikes when called to assist Afghan forces.

More than 50% of the civilians killed were women and children, said Richard Bennett, UNAMA’s human rights director.

“These tactics have resulted in a high proportion of deaths of civilians,” raising U.N. concerns, he said, referring to airstrikes and search operations.

“Every death, every injury is a tragedy for civilians,” said Bennett. “This remains an intense conflict and there are way too many civilians being killed and injured by all parties.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this year urged his ground forces to take greater care to protect civilian lives while conducting search operations.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Dave Butler said a cease-fire would be the “best way to end the suffering of non-combatants.” - Read More

UN: Pro-government forces kill more Afghans than insurgents - AP News

Biden Launches 2020 Campaign As Rescue Mission For America's 'Soul'

After months of oscillating speculation, followed by a long ramp up that drew out uncomfortable reassessments of his long public career, former Vice President Joe Biden has announced that he will run for president in 2020.

Biden made the announcement in a video released on Thursday. He's expected to head to Pittsburgh for a kickoff event next week, highlighting the focus the latest Democratic candidate places on winning back key states President Trump flipped in 2016.

Biden's announcement focuses on a "battle for the soul of this nation," with a dramatic video centered around the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., and President Trump's response that there were "very fine people on both sides" after a counterprotester was killed.

"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime," Biden says in the video.

"I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time," Biden adds. "But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

The 76-year-old former Delaware senator immediately becomes a top contender vying for the Democratic nomination, four years after passing on a bid for the White House in the wake of his son Beau's death. However, he will surely face questions about his age, past positions on policing and actions toward women in the wake of the #MeToo era. Biden is the 20th candidate to enter the Democratic primary race.

President Trump responded to Biden's announcement in a tweet, using the nickname he's applied to the former vice president, "Sleepy Joe."

The president added: "I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty - you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!" - Read More

Biden Launches 2020 Campaign As Rescue Mission For America's 'Soul'

Monday, April 22, 2019

US voices disappointment at delay in Afghan talks

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Afghanistan’s president over the weekend to express Washington’s disappointment over the indefinite postponement of Afghan talks with the Taliban, according to a statement released Monday.

The talks were scheduled to start this coming Friday in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an office, but were scuttled after a falling-out between the two sides over who should attend.

The gathering would have marked the first time that Taliban and Kabul government officials sat together, a potential milestone in efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The State Department said that in his call with President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday, Pompeo encouraged both sides to come together to agree on participants, saying the talks are Afghanistan’s best chance for peace.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has met on several occasions with the Taliban and has pressed for Afghan-to-Afghan talks, had expressed hope the Qatar meeting would bring the sides closer to a “roadmap” for a future Afghanistan.

In a second statement released Monday, the U.S. State Department said Khalilzad would travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Qatar, as well as Russia and the United Kingdom, for further talks. It said the multi-country trip began Monday and will end May 11.

It said that in Kabul, Khalilzad will “consult with the Afghan government and other Afghans to encourage all parties to work towards intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations to determine a final peace settlement.”

In Qatar, Khalilzad will meet again with the Taliban to focus on “national security issues,” an apparent reference to guarantees Washington is seeking that Afghanistan will not again be used as a staging area for terrorist attacks. The two sides have also been discussing a timetable for the withdrawal of an estimated 14,000 U.S. troops, a longstanding Taliban demand. - Read More

US voices disappointment at delay in Afghan talks - The Washington ...

Afghan Supreme Court allows Ghani term to cover delay to election

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s Supreme Court has ruled that President Ashraf Ghani can stay in office until a much-delayed presidential election, which is due to be held after his mandate expires next month, officials said.

The election, originally scheduled for April this year, has been postponed twice to allow more time to organize the poll, first to July and then to Sept. 28, well after the official end of Ghani’s five-year term on May 22.

Amid growing division in Kabul, opposition politicians demanded he step down as soon as his mandate ends and give way to an interim government to oversee peace talks with the Taliban. Ghani, seeking a second term, has ruled that out.

Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the court decision, but the way the news was announced underscores the confusion in Afghan politics as Ghani’s term nears its end.

Television station Ariana TV first carried the news on Sunday, citing a court document ruling that the constitution allowed the president to remain in office until the election.

However, with political rivals attacking the move and accusing the government of imposing the ruling, the court refused to confirm the decision, saying it was for the government to announce.

The presidential palace press office said only the court could announce its own decision. - Read More

Afghan Supreme Court allows Ghani term to cover delay to election ...

Sunday, April 21, 2019

20 Highest Paid World Leaders - USA Today

We know it pays to be a CEO of Fortune 500 company -- does it also pay to be president of a country? Ask the men and women who are among the top paid world leaders.

Earning from just over $200,000 to more than $1.6 million, the yearly earnings of these heads of states far exceed the pay of the average citizen in their countries. Generally, these countries tend to be among the wealthiest and most productive countries in the world. Although among the countries on this list, the leaders' annual salaries are well above the country’s GDP per capita or average wages.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed publicly available annual compensation figures to identify 20 of the highest-paid leaders in the world. We gathered information from country websites, as well as data from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the CIA World Factbook.

Salaries are expressed in U.S. dollars that were converted from country of origin currencies as of April 13, 2018. Leaders of absolute monarchies such as Qatar, Brunei Darussalam, and Saudi Arabia were excluded from our list due to a lack of consistent available data. Constitutional monarchies were included, except where the highest ranking officials have the power to appoint the government. In such cases, including Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates, state leadership compensation often is not publicly disclosed. - Read More

20 Highest Paid World Leaders - USA Today

Saturday, April 20, 2019

At least seven dead as attackers storm Afghan ministry building - The Guardian

Suicide attackers stormed the Afghan ministry of communications on Saturday, killing at least seven people. The assault came the day after the collapse of long-anticipated peace talks between the Taliban and a broad spectrum of their Afghan opponents.

The attack also ended weeks of relative calm in the Afghan capital. Militants dressed in Afghan security forces uniforms targeted one of the tallest buildings in Kabul, next to the prestigious Serena hotel, which has been hit by insurgent attacks several times previously.

Three civilians and four policemen were killed in several hours of fighting as gunfire and blasts echoed through Kabul’s normally busy central hub, and security forces evacuated and sealed off streets. Eight other people were injured including several women.

“I was near the shrine when I saw four armed men with very new uniforms,” said Shahab Baloch, 30, an employee of a private finance company who narrowly escaped the attack when passing through the area.

“They had Kalashnikovs and two of them had something else in their hands. I took a couple more steps then there was an explosion, with dust everywhere so I couldn’t see anything. I lay behind some blast barriers and the gunfire started.”

Television images showed people fleeing the high-rise and nearby buildings, some scrambling out of windows on the lower floors of the 18-storey tower.

In total, nearly 2,000 people were evacuated safely from the ministry of communications, the ministry of culture and information and a government statistics office, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said.

A suicide bomber launched the attack by blowing himself up outside the communications ministry, according to police chief Gen Sayed Mohammad Roshandil.

That blast cleared the way for four gunmen to enter the heavily guarded government compound and the ministry buildings, sparking a siege that lasted several hours, Associated Press reported. - Read More

At least seven dead as attackers storm Afghan ministry building ...

Controversial Bundestag speech by AfD's Alexander Gauland about German army mission in Afghanistan

Read More:

Controversial Bundestag speech by AfD's Alexander Gauland about German army mission in Afghanistan - Read More

Friday, April 19, 2019

Progress against torture in Afghan detention centres, but Government needs to do more, says UN report

Based on interviews with more than 600 detainees and published jointly by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), their latest report on the treatment of prisoners in 77 facilities in 28 out of 34 provinces indicates that an average of nearly one in three, provided “credible and reliable” accounts of suffering. 

In the previous reporting period, covering 2015 and 2016, the ratio was closer to four in 10. 

Beatings represented the most common form of torture and ill-treatment, according to the data, which also noted that “the vast majority” of detainees held for alleged links to extremist group ISIL (also known as Daesh) or other opposition forces, said they had been tortured or ill-treated to force them to confess - and that the treatment stopped once they did so. 

Significant differences in the treatment of detainees were found depending on where they were held, with one Afghan National Police (ANP) facility in Kandahar, linked to a 77 per cent torture rate - well above the 31 per cent ANP average. 

The Kandahar findings included allegations of “brutal” forms of torture such as “suffocation, electric shocks, pulling of genitals and suspension from ceilings”, UNAMA and OHCHR said, while underlining that abuse allegations in ANP detention centres had fallen - from a 45 per cent average – since 2016. 

The report, which finds that youngsters are at higher risk of suffering mistreatment, discusses how detainees’ rights are violated in other areas.

These include a lack of legal safeguards to prevent torture, difficulties in gaining access to lawyers and the continued absence of accountability for perpetrators, with very limited referrals to prosecution. 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, said the report’s findings demonstrated that the embattled Government’s policies put in place to combat torture and ill-treatment were having an effect, but they were far from sufficient. -  Read More

Progress against torture in Afghan detention centres, but Government needs to do more, says UN report

Merkel 'highly qualified' for EU post: Juncker

Angela Merkel will bid farewell to the chancellor's office in Berlin in 2021. The outgoing president of the European Commission thinks she is a "a complete and endearing work of art" who would do well in Brussels.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Germany's Funke Media Group on Saturday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is "highly qualified" for a top European Union job.

Asked whether he could imagine her assuming an EU office after her term as chancellor ends in 2021, Juncker said he "could not imagine" Merkel "disappearing into thin air."

"She is not only a person of respect, but also a complete and endearing work of art," Juncker said.

Merkel steered the bloc through a period of economic crisis and political turbulence after becoming chancellor in 2005, earning her the reputation of being Europe's most powerful leader.

Upon announcing her intention to step down as leader of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel said she would not seek any other political offices after 2021. Her longtime ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has succeeded her as party leader and is widely seen as a contender for the chancellorship. - Read More

Read more: Most Germans say Merkel should serve out her term

Merkel ′highly qualified′ for EU post: Juncker | News | DW | 20.04 ...

Ex-president: Peace possible when all Afghans sit together

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai said Friday that peace in his homeland, ravaged by more than 17 years of war, will only be possible when Afghans from all sectors of society sit together and negotiate — including the Taliban.

Karzai expressed disappointment that a scheduled gathering for Afghan-to-Afghan talks in Qatar was postponed indefinitely after a falling out over who should attend. It would have marked the first time that Taliban and Kabul government officials sat together.

The talks, which were to start Friday in Doha, where the Taliban maintain an office, were considered a significant first step toward finding a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest conflict, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

The Taliban had previously refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, calling it a puppet of the U.S. They subsequently gave in to pressure and agreed to talks that included Kabul representatives, though they said they would recognize them only as ordinary Afghans, rather than government officials or ministers.

On Thursday, however, Qatar’s Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, which sponsors the talks, announced the postponement, saying “this is unfortunately necessary to further build consensus as to who should participate in the conference.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Karzai would not blame either side for the cancellation, instead urging the United States to “put force behind it to make it (talks) happen.”

He also praised Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as “the very best person for the job” of resolving the Afghan crisis.

“I believe the United States wants some sort of settlement in Afghanistan,” Karzai told The Associated Press. “I do believe that, but I want the U.S. to be much clearer about its roadmap ... to do everything it can to make the process move forward.” 

In a statement Friday, the Taliban said Ghani had sabotaged the talks by declaring the people on his list were government representatives. Ghani in turn blamed the Taliban for scuttling the talks by getting Qatar to allow a different list, one that had dropped several government ministers and 44 women.- Read More

Ex-president: Peace possible when all Afghans sit together - AP News

U.S. envoy 'disappointed' by collapse of inter-Afghan peace meeting

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan expressed disappointment on Friday after the collapse of a planned meeting between the Taliban and a group of Afghan politicians in Qatar that exposed some of the deep divisions hampering efforts to end the war.

A 250-strong delegation of Afghan politicians and civil society figures had been due to meet Taliban officials in Doha at the weekend.

But the event was abruptly canceled on Thursday amid arguments over the size and status of the group, which included some government officials attending in a personal capacity.

“I’m disappointed Qatar’s intra-Afghan initiative has been delayed,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, said on Twitter. “I urge all sides to seize the moment and put things back on track by agreeing to a participant list that speaks for all Afghans.”

The collapse of the meeting before it had even started, described as a “fiasco” by one senior Western official, laid bare the tensions that have hampered moves toward opening formal peace negotiations.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat, has held a series of meetings with Taliban representatives but the insurgents have so far refused to talk to the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime.

The Doha meeting was intended to prepare the ground for possible future talks by building familiarity among Taliban officials and representatives of the Afghan state created after the U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban government in 2001. A similar encounter was held in Moscow in February.

President Ashraf Ghani’s office blamed Qatari authorities for the cancellation, saying they had authorized a list of participants that differed from the one proposed by Kabul, “which meant disrespect for the national will of the Afghans”.

“This act is not acceptable for the people of Afghanistan,” it said in a statement on Friday. - Read More

U.S. envoy 'disappointed' by collapse of inter-Afghan peace meeting ...

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Peace Conference Plans Derailed as Taliban Object to Afghan Delegation -nytimes

DOHA, Qatar — A peace conference in Qatar that was intended to bring Taliban negotiators and Afghan government officials together was postponed indefinitely on Thursday after the insurgents objected to the large number of Afghan officials included in the country’s delegation.

It was a setback to American efforts to end the long war in Afghanistan, with no progress achieved on a formula for how power would be shared following an American withdrawal even though United States diplomats and Taliban negotiators have nearea deal in talks that have so far excluded the Afghan government.

The two-day conference, scheduled to begin Saturday, was seen as an effort to bring the Taliban closer to meeting with the Afghan government and to pave the way for direct negotiations. The Afghan officials were expected to arrive as part of a delegation of nearly 200 people representing a cross-section of society.

Despite last-minute diplomatic efforts to save the conference after disagreements over the list surfaced, the organizer said late on Thursday that the event, already delayed a couple of times, was now postponed with no future date set.

“Despite tireless and well-intentioned efforts of all parties, a shared understanding on how to achieve inclusivity couldn’t be reached,” said Sultan Barakat, the director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha, which was the host of the event on behalf of the Qatar government. “All parties are working to resolve differences over the size and makeup of the delegation to visit Doha.”

The last-minute breakdown was sudden. Dozens of Afghan officials who had gone to bed expecting to fly to Qatar on Thursday woke instead to “final” lists of the meeting’s participants in local news media. Those lists, which were leaked by individuals close to the Taliban, did not include the Afghan officials’ names. That was followed by phone calls telling them that the delegation’s flight to Qatar was off.

Early on Thursday, Afghan officials made clear to the Qatari government they would not accept changes to their list of about 200 participants, which emerged from a protracted internal selection process; the Taliban continued refusing to meet with that group - Read More

Peace Conference Plans Derailed as Taliban Object to Afghan ...

Highlights From The Mueller Report, Annotated - NPR

The Justice Department has released a redacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

» A copy of the document is available here.

Read notable excerpts from the redacted report, annotated by NPR reporters and editors, below. We'll be updating this analysis throughout the day as we read the report. - Read More

Highlights From The Mueller Report, Annotated